The Morality of the Market Economy? A Reply to Jensen

Fr. Gregory Jensen, an Orthodox priest who has been recruited into the Acton Institute’s side project of manufacturing a pro-capitalist social teaching for the Christian East, opined earlier this month that shifts in retail praxis during this “holiday season” away from the supersized “Black Friday” model (e.g., stores opening up on Thanksgiving) was due to the “moral cues of shoppers.” According to Jensen, shoppers wishing to do wholesome things have helped reshape the behavior of retailers by shaming them into dialing-down their formerly aggressive marketing campaigns for “Black Friday”-exclusive deals and keeping their doors closed so that their employees can spend Thanksgiving (an atrocious holiday) with their families. This alleged shift “is critical for helping us understand the moral goodness of the market economy,” or so says Jensen. Here are a few more of his words:

It is only in this light that we are able to identify and correct its moral failures. Unlike top-down, command and control approaches such as socialism or crony capitalism, the market economy responds to what people actually want. This means that retailers who wish to make a profit must be sensitive and responsive to consumers’ moral concerns. This is why retailers’ deference to consumers’ morality doesn’t surprise me; it’s how the market works. The real question is not does morality inform the market but whose morality informs the market.

There are so many strange claims packed into such a small space that it’s difficult to tease out exactly what Jensen is trying to convey.

First, the “moral cues of shoppers” may have little-to-nothing to do with retailers directing themselves away from the old “Black Friday” model. As Jensen acknowledges (but doesn’t really discuss in depth), the advent of on-demand online shopping, including “Cyber Monday,” has made running out at 4am the day after Thanksgiving seem increasingly ludicrous. Sensing that people would rather sit at home, drink beer, and watch football rather than fight traffic, lines, and the chance that some coveted product will be out-of-stock, retailers are simply transferring their focus to online rather than brick-and-mortar approaches. But how is this any more “moral” than the old approach? It is still feeding into a consumerist mindset and compelling people to spend less time at the dinner table expressing what they are thankful for and more time in front of their smart phones ordering gifts (or, just as likely, stuff for themselves).

Second, Jensen’s praise of the “market economy” over-and-against “crony capitalism” is quite queer given how insistent the Acton Institute is on America’s economy being overwhelmed with crony capitalism. Does the glorious and sacrosanct “market economy” appear once-a-year like Jolly Old Saint Nick only to recede into legend the rest of the time? How does Jensen think large-scale retailers and the manufacturers they serve stay in business but for tax breaks, transfer payments, and tilted regulation? Moreover, there is nothing about “crony capitalism” which prevents favored firms from responding to shifts in consumer demand in order to maximize profits. So, does that prove that crony capitalism also possesses “moral goodness”? Perish the thought.

Last, if the “moral goodness” of the “market economy” (or “crony capitalism”) is proved by its willingness to “respond[ ] to what people actually want,” is this economic form also “moral” when it responds to demands for violent pornography, prostitution, and narcotics? If the morality of an economic system is measured only by its capacity for preference-fulfillment, then we must first be agnostic toward the nature of those preferences. It is unfathomable how an Orthodox Christian—a priest!—can take such a nihilistic stand, and yet in the name of advancing the glorious cause of capitalism, this is exactly what Jensen appears to be doing.

Jensen may counter by claiming that it is up to us as individuals to make “moral choices” when it comes to our preferences, and to some extent he would be correct. However, whatever happened to not placing stumbling blocks in front of people? Why should a decent society ordered toward the common good allow the market to run wild, tempting sinful and weak human beings into committing greater and greater damnable acts? And though it is true that not all people are out to indulge in vice when they take to the Internet to purchase goods and services, there is something to be said for a decent society limiting opportunities for consumerism and the waste which attends to it. Jensen is distressingly silent on such matters, which is typical for Actonites but quite contrary to the patrimony of his chosen confession.

3 comments

  1. Just saw this, on Christmas Day no less. Oh the irony. As an eCommerce copywriter for a huge apparel company (which was part of the megatrend mentioned in the OP), I think I can safely assure Fr Jensen that customers’ moral cues had little to do with it. I am not saying they had NO influence: The REI case shows otherwise. But the trend toward online shopping vs brick-and-mortar has been steadily gathering momentum for a while now. Most of the analyses I’ve seen attribute it mainly to the convenience factor. Why brave massive crowds and crowded parking lots when you can shop from home via your phone? I mean, duhh.

    Of course, for me, this is a pretty good supporting argument for capitalism, but that’s just me. :)

  2. BTW your last point is spot-on (re “responding” to the demand for violent pornography etc.). But this is why we capitalist flunkies favor a modified, partly regulated capitalism vs the laissez faire variety.

    By the way, if you want to see a fascinating film about the ways the Internet has transformed modern marketing, view *The Naked Brand.* Highly recommended. Just ignore the bits about Occupy Wall Street, which was about as spontaneous and unrehearsed as kabuki theater.

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